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Budget for Michigan schools approved

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Republican-led Michigan Legislature gave final approval Thursday to a K-12 budget that would boost base per-student aid for most schools by $240, or 3%, which supporters lauded as record funding and some Democrats said would not keep pace with costs in an underfunded system.

The $15.2 billion measure will soon go to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who said it would spend “far short of what our children deserve.” She is likely to sign the bill, though, so schools are funded.

This is the first time in a decade that districts and charter schools have not known their state aid is by July, the beginning of their fiscal year — the byproduct of protracted budget negotiations in an era of divided government. Also Thursday, lawmakers began advancing a $5.4 billion transportation budget that would include the use of $468 million in income tax revenue required under 2015 and 2018 laws, and $400 million in general funds for road and bridge repairs — a net 7% funding increase.

The minimum per-pupil grant, which most schools receive, would increase from $7,871 to $8,111 under the legislation that cleared the House and Senate on 91-18 and 21-17 votes. Districts at the higher end would get $8,529, or $120 more than the current $8,409 allotment — a 1.4% bump.

The school aid budget would have $387 million more in state money, or 3%, about $136 million less than what Whitmer proposed. Schools getting the minimum base amount would get a bigger increase than Whitmer proposed, but they would not see significant boosts in funding for at-risk or career and technical education students, as she proposed.

Districts’ reimbursements for special education would rise by 2 percentage points, or $60 million — half of what her plan included.

“This budget, when you consider the status quo, funds education at a truly fantastic level,” said Rep. Aaron Miller, a Sturgis Republican. He said it would begin the process of no longer using school aid dollars to fund higher education and target certain areas such as special education.

But Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing — the top Democrat on the Senate budget committee — criticized GOP lawmakers for touting “record” spending on schools, likening it to a legislative “participation medal” because tax revenue routinely rises due to inflation.

“This is largely a status quo budget. It’s basically an inflationary increase. It doesn’t do much more than that,” he said, citing how the state’s students are “floundering” when compared with other Midwest states and nationally.

Sen. Wayne Schmidt, a Traverse City Republican, countered that the budget “is one based on current revenues and not a $2.5 billion tax increase that didn’t have support.”

Whitmer’s K-12 proposal was partly linked to a 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax increase — now dead — that would have increased spending on deteriorating roads and bridges while also freeing up money for education.

Democrats were divided over the school budget. Every Democratic senator voted against it, while 33 of 52 House Democrats voted for it after House Minority Leader Christine Greig cut a deal with House Speaker Lee Chatfield to spend $30 million more to reimburse districts for their special education costs.

“With new revenue sources off the table, we fought extremely hard to get the best budget for our schools with the options made available to us, and in the end developed something that is truly bipartisan,” Greig said.

But other Democrats said the spending would not keep up with inflation or the rising cost of pension benefits.

“At the end of the day, if we’re trying to solve the educational crisis in the state and trying to become a top 10 state, this budget is far from getting us there,” Hertel said when asked about House Democrats striking the deal. “But I will say that at I don’t think it was worth compromising on, no.”

Budget talks between Whitmer and Republican leaders broke down last week, even after the sides agreed to table discussions over a long-term road-funding plan. The Legislature is planning to approve non-K-12 spending measures next week. She may veto parts of the budget.

The deadline is Sept. 30.

A big sticking point is short-term road spending.

Whitmer and Democrats oppose using $400 million in general funds — a routine practice in recent years, but one they say is a Band-Aid approach that effectively hurts other spending, including on education.

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican, said roads must be prioritized in the coming budget while Whitmer and GOP leaders search for a long-term solution.

“Yes, this is one-time funding for this year. But it continues to make sure that we’re making that investment that the people of Michigan have asked us for,” he said.

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